Lessons, and Lessons
by Dan Suptic
(Winner, 2nd Place, 2013)
A Sindran student, training to become a Loreseeker, deals with the stress of overcoming difficult trials, along with his professor's complicated expectations.
Aethyralun nervously drummed his fingers on the arm of the large, wooden chair.
trrrpt, trrrpt, trrrpt
Like all things in the academy (and in fact, in all of the city of Ballicazar, and the nation of Sindra as well), the office of Professor K'elt was overly ornate, expansively large and open, and of course, accented with decorative runes, sigils, and arcane scripts. Slumped in his similarly-styled robes, the young man waited for the arrival of his professor. It had already been a long wait, but Aethyralun kept himself busy with drumming his fingers, nervously pulling at his short hair, and repeatedly glancing at the door.
He didn't want to be here. The studies and exercises were difficult and draining. The arcane training wore down his spirit's energy while the mundane classwork drained his mental stamina. Being a Loreseeker meant searching for ancient secrets and new mysteries, but becoming a Loreseeker involved countless hours of study and practice. And tests. Which is why he had been called in to meet with his professor – Aethyralun was nearly certain he'd failed his first examination. Not a promising start to his academic career.
It didn't help that he was completely intimidated by Professor K'elt. The wizard who Aethyralun studied under had been with the academy as long as the school had existed. Some say that the professor used dark magics to halt aging, others say he's some type of elemental or golem. Aethyralun particularly enjoyed the rumor that K'elt stole immortality from the gods themselves, causing the deities unrest (and eventual Skyfall) as he fled from the heavens. Undoubtedly untrue, but highly entertaining to visualize.
K'elt's physical presence was as demanding and outlandish as his personal history. Tall and strong, built thick and stocky, he somehow moved with grace and purpose, like water through an alchemist's apparatuses. His voice was deep, his sentences articulate, and his hair and sideburns flared impressively from his stern face. Whenever Aethyralun looked at K'elt, the word 'Owl' flew immediately to his mind. Aethyralun knew it was only a matter of time before he accidently addressed him by that mental nickname.
It was a shame that punctuality wasn't on Professor K'elt's long list of virtues. Aethyralun continued to drum his fingers (trrrpt, trrrpt, trrrpt), and briefly considered leaving a note or a message while he went back to his studies. He sighed and shifted in the chair. His robes bunched up and twisted uncomfortably. His foot itched. His mouth was dry. His fingers were sore from drumming. Five more minutes, he thought, and then I'm out.
After what Aethyralun guessed to be exactly four minutes and 59 seconds more, the door to the office opened, and the great Professor K'elt entered. The wizard regally strode to his side of the desk and settled gracefully into his chair. His wide gaze settled on Aethyralun (he had a bet with some other students that the professor never blinked), and he addressed the young mage.
"Greetings Aethyralun – I appreciate that you've taken the time to meet with me today"
"Yeah, no problem professor," Aethyralun said. He did not add the word 'Owl' out loud. A small victory, this.
K'elt leaned forward slightly as he continued. "I would like to speak to you about the events that occurred during your first official test as an initiate Loreseeker. I am correct to say that this test was to perform maintenance on the protective circle engraved upon the roof of this very building, yes?"
"Yeah, me and three other students. Um, they really shouldn't fail just because of what I…"
K'elt cut in abruptly. "You were to complete the task before sunset, according to the test. Your group did not finish maintenance on this building's ward until 2 hours of night had passed. Why did it take so long, Aethyralun?"
Aethyralun flinched as his gut lurched. "Uh, well sir, everything was going fine, but I heard something in the streets. I glanced down, and saw some guy running off with a coinpurse, and some lady screaming. The town guards were chasing him, but, they were far behind already – he totally would have gotten away. So, I cast a quick Footroot spell so the guards could catch him. This sort of messed up the sequence we were on, so we had to start over on the protective circle. Which is what added a few hours. So we were 2 hours late. So, if things went well, we'd be an hour ahead. But, the guards did end up catching the thief…"
Shut up shut up shut up, Aethyralun screamed at himself. He knew he was rambling. He only hoped that his explanation was good enough to keep the rest of the group out of trouble. It wouldn't be fair for them to fail just because he didn't keep focus on the job at hand.
Professor K'elt listened, and once Aethyralun was done talking, he took a deep breath, smiled ever so slightly, and said, "Diligence and focus are very important traits for a Loreseeker. There's much in our world, and the worlds beyond, that require a steady, keen mind to understand, to decode, and correctly archive. But, we must never let our duty drive us so hard that we ignore those in need of help. Especially help that we can supply easily. The wards would have lasted another week on their own, but the theft of that woman's property could have troubled her for the rest of the year. You did not fail at all in your test, Aethyralun – in fact, you've set yourself above the other's in your group. Congratulations."
Aethyralun took a minute to process exactly what the professor had said.
"Wait, sir, so I'm not in trouble at all?"
"Far from trouble," K'elt spoke. "You've done well – you may leave and continue your studies."
Aethyralun's heart was racing and he was almost dizzy with giddiness. "Thank you sir! Thank you – I'll go study, yes!"
Leave, you're about to ramble again, idiot, Aethyralun told himself. He got up from the chair, nodded at K'elt, and walked towards the door. In his haste, he managed to step on the hem of his robes. Aethyralun stumbled, and ended up looking like he was half-jogging, half-dancing to the door as he struggled to maintain balance.
Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit.
Still, Aethyralun thought as he headed to his room, that went WAY better than expected.
trrrpt, trrrpt, trrrpt
It had only been a week since the last meeting with Professor K'elt, and Aethyralun was again in the same wooden chair, in the same office. And like last time, Aethyralun was not happy to be here. At least the room had nice acoustics for his drumming fingertips.
Another request for a personal meeting after the last graded test. 2 tests taken, and then called in after each one. Sure, the first meeting had ended up going quite well, but Aethyralun was pretty certain that this next meeting wasn't going to be one to call a 'win'.
Aethyralun was almost ready to feel optimistic about being considered K'elt's star pupil. But he knew it was a fluke, and being in the spotlight just made you a better target. He'd always felt like he never really fit in with the other students, not in the Loreseeker academy, not in any of the schools he attended growing up. He could cast spells and perform rituals just fine, sure, but Aethyralun knew he just thought differently sometimes.
trrrpt, trrrpt, trrrpt
And it's not like he had failed at the test; the final result was a success, it shouldn't matter that…
Aethyralun's thought process was cut short as Professor K'elt entered the room. He was in mid-tap with his fingers too, when the professor strode to the chair opposite him. Aethyralun made a quick fist, realized that looked weird, spread his fingers out, realized that looked weird too, realized that his spastic hand motions also looked weird, and finally settled on awkwardly patting the armrest.
"Greetings, Aethyralun," K'elt said, "and again, welcome to my office. Are your studies going well?"
"Uh, sure, I guess so…" Aethyralun mumbled. He was having a hard time meeting his professor's gaze, knowing if he looked up he'd see disappointment. Maybe even anger. It was expensive to fund a Loreseeker's training after all, and Aethyralun definitely felt that the school wasn't getting its money's worth with him.
"I feel you are nervous – do you know why I wished to talk to you today?"
Aethyralun nodded, managed to even look up at Professor K'elt, almost meeting his gaze. "Well sir, I suspect it has to do with my last test."
Professor K'elt nodded, keeping his eyes on the younger student. "You are correct. Your test was smaller in scope than the last, but we evaluate every assessment with the same magnitude of importance, understand?"
Aethyralun nodded again, glumly. This conversation was headed right on track, right on schedule, straight to Punishmentville: Population, Aethyralun. It might even make it to Demerit Town. If Aethyralun couldn't defend his actions well enough, if his blunder was deemed too severe, the last stop on this disciplinary journey could be Expulsion City.
Professor K'elt continued, saying "You were given an important scroll, one which had been encased in a thick shell of ice. Your task was to remove the ice from the scroll, leaving the scroll intact and unharmed. Now, I know what your solution to this was, but I'd like to hear about some of the things you didn't try." With that, the professor leaned forward, with a look of stern interest.
Aethyralun fidgeted, taking a deep breath. "Well, sir, most fire spells would have melted the ice, but probably would have burnt the scroll too. Shattering incantations might have ripped the scroll, uh, teleportation wouldn't work since the water probably soaked into the scroll before it froze. Same reason transformation spells wouldn't do well. And uh, I just forget about the elemental sublimation sub-school of rituals…"
Professor K'elt leaned back. "So, instead of any arcane applications, you took the pot of boiling water than Professor Hain was going to prepare coffee with, poured it upon your frozen scroll to melt and weaken the ice, then, and I quote Hain directly, 'flipped out like some stupid barbarian and just smacked the scroll right on the damn table'. This is correct?"
Aethyralun could feel his face flush as he said, "Yeah, I mean, yes, yes sir. But to be fair, the scroll was fine and I was done way befo…"
Professor K'elt cut him off. "Magic is a powerful, versatile force, and for a Loreseeker, it is our most reliable tool. Magic can tear a mountain in half, and it can repair the wings of a butterfly. It can burn forests and freeze oceans. It can restore life, it can cause death, it creates, it destroys, it alters, it stabilizes. Magic is universally useful."
Aethyralun didn't know how to respond. He felt like he couldn't breathe, like he was going to be sick. His only consolation was that this meeting was going exactly as bad as he expected.
But K'elt continued, saying, "That being said, while Magic is our greatest tool, it isn't our only tool. Sometimes a Loreseeker is required to be clever and useful outside the realm of the arcane, and keeping your less-than-mystical skills sharp is important. You took a situation where the magic you had access to couldn't help you, and still succeeded – you did very well, Aethyralun."
Aethyralun blinked, stunned. "I… well, ok! Thank you, sir! I really thought I screwed up bad there!"
"You passed your test just fine. You're free to leave and enjoy the rest of the evening," K'elt said.
Aethyralun stood up, quicker than he meant to, knocking his chair backwards.
He had time to think oh no! before the chair hit the floor, making an absurdly loud sound as it banged against the stone tiles. Aethyralun scrambled to get the chair upright, loudly scratching the legs on the floor – stop no no no shhhh – until, finally, the chair's position was reset.
Aethyralun hurried out of the room. He was overjoyed to hear that he passed some secret test-within-a-test, and that almost made him feel ok about the embarrassment from the trouble he apparently had standing up from a chair.
Aethyralun sat almost completely still in the familiar chair, save for the occasional rhythmic tapping of his fingers. Again, waiting on the same professor he met with every week, and again, this meeting occurring (obviously not coincidently) right after the completion of his most recent exam. Not that 'complete' would be a word that one could use to describe the outcome of events. Aethyralun couldn't help but smile at that.
This pretentious charade had really been going on far too long. It's been… many months, almost a year maybe? Aethyralun found it hard to keep track anymore. But it was always the same. He'd get called in after whatever task he was to do. He'd explain why he did what he did (whether he succeeded or failed). And Professor K'elt would explain some real meaning or lesson that the test was actually about, all along. Every. Single. Time.
Nothing could ever be simple. Oh no, it couldn't be so simple as getting some cat out of a tree. It had to be some complicated allegory about nature struggling against itself, or how man's intervention into wildlife could yield positive results, or even how remarking on the odd coloration of the cat was somehow indicative of a brilliant, seeking mind. Aethyralun breathed out hard through gritted teeth, subconsciously quickening his fingers as they tapped.
trrrpt trrrpt trrrpt
He'd memorized ever single aspect of this office, the unchanging placement of every item, the text and runes on every visible surface. Professor K'elt sure liked things comfortable and tidy; nothing ever seemed to change between these meetings. Aethyralun thought that he perhaps saw new, minor dents in the chair's armrest when the light hit it just right, but that was probably his imagination. The chair likely had more impact on his fingertips than the other way around.
Hell, Aethyralun thought, memorizing every feature of this stupid office was probably a test too…
trrrpt, trrrpt, trrrpt
Right now, the only thing that was being tested was Aethyralun's patience, but he forced himself to stay calm. It was very, very likely that this would be his last visit here, and the look on K'elt's face today would be worth 100 years of these weekly meetings. Aethyralun would be expelled of course, but there were always alternatives. The warmage barracks regularly needed new recruits, and battle magic, while a bit dull, was easy enough to master. Or if not that, the assorted arcane colleges in all of Sindra's cities hired talented spellcasters as teachers – even mentioning mere attendance at the Loreseeker academy was enough to get a good position.
Finally, Professor K'elt made his entrance, as serious and purposeful as ever. It took every ounce of Aethyralun's willpower to keep from grinning ear to ear. This last meeting was going to be highly entertaining.
"Greetings, and thank you for coming to this meeting as always, Aethyralun."
Aethyralun pointed his fingers at the professor and pantomimed firing crossbows at him. "Hey, no problem, prof," he said. His demeanor towards K'elt had been getting more and more casual, and today, he was just too excited to care about respect and protocol at all.
Professor K'elt, ever so slightly, raised an eyebrow, "Well, as always, we're here to review the results of your last test. You were tasked with going to the Shimmering Scarf brothel, tracking down a rare book that one of the proprietors owned, and convincing him to release it into your possession. A mostly diplomatic quest; we even supplied you with ample funds to bargain for it. Correct?"
"That sounds right, sure," Aethyralun said.
"You returned with neither the book, nor the money we supplied you. What is the explanation for this?"
Aethyralun could barely contain himself as he leaned forward, smiling as he started talking. "Well sir, I found the brothel quite easily. It's apparently a very popular one, and they hire just the nicest, loveliest girls you can imagine. So, I went in, and asked around a bit about this book. None of the girls knew, the hired help didn't know, the manager on hand had never heard of it, and even the bouncer, he didn't know either! No one ever heard of this book; that was just a bit discouraging!"
Aethyralun paused, savoring every second of this conversation.
K'elt spoke, "Frustration is a common obstacle in the search for knowledge – do go on."
"Well," Aethyralun continued, "I just didn't know what to do! No one had heard of this book, their office only contained receipts, ledgers, and certain tools one would expect in a brothel, and I simply wasn't allowed to break down walls or smash through the floor to look for a hidden cache. I was at a loss… but then, I suddenly had an idea! I had the perfect idea, and with the money provided, I enacted my brilliant plan!"
Aethyralun paused again, and at this point, was simply unable to stop himself from grinning ear to ear.
"Do tell," the professor said, solemn, serious, calm.
Aethyralun leaned back as he said, "I purchased the companionship of several of the girls, along with some nice wine and some stuff from Boru I can't even pronounce. It smoked nicely though, gave me some really clever hallucinations. We should get some more of it, give it to the professors who teach Advanced Illusions and Phantasms. They'd come up with some amazing spells, I'm sure of it."
Aethyralun was almost laughing as he spoke. "But, anyways, I bought all that, and then enjoyed it all over the course of the weekend. One of the girls I enjoyed several times, in fact. Now, none of that helped me find any book, sure, but I'm pretty happy with the results myself."
Aethyralun settled back in the chair, overjoyed as he watched his Professor's stern face. The long silence was beautiful. Aethyralun sat as still as he could, his defiant smile unwavering, while inside he shouted and laughed and sang and rejoiced. There'd be yelling soon, and after that, well, tomorrow would truly be a new day.
Professor K'elt finally spoke, a little more quietly than normal. "So. Once the work required to finish your task became too difficult, once your goal was apparently impossible, you gave up and resorted to excessive debauchery and worldly pleasures. Spending the academy's money that was trusted to you, nonetheless. Tell me, did you truly have such a good time, that you feel these actions had any justification?"
"Oh yeah, it was simply amazing," Aethyralun said, smirking. "I could tell you the details, but let's just say I had a good time. A really good time."
Professor K'elt suddenly (and uncharacteristically) grinned back at Aethyralun. "Good! We worry our students tend to get too stressed out with the constant lessons, classes, trials, quizzes, tests, and examinations. Oddly, the faculty has never had much luck just asking students to take a few days off. They always think we're up to something, for some peculiar reason. It is much easier, and quicker, to send them on an imagined mission that simply has only one real result – relaxation and fun."
Aethyralun's smile died, falling hard into an angry scowl. His hands gripped the armrests to the chair hard enough to produce sharp sounds of straining wood.
Professor K'elt continued, saying, "We naturally want our students to be dutiful in their education, but one must always tend to their own health and mental well-being. A frustrated, tired, angry, or depressed Loreseeker will taint their quest and their findings with their dire mood; but, an upbeat, rested, happy Loreseeker takes to their pursuit of knowledge with optimism and vigor, and their results…"
Aethyralun cut in. "No. Come on. I mean… come ON!" He was almost shaking in anger as he stood up, placing his hands on the professor's desk.
"Are you serious?! Another hidden, secret lesson? Another fake-out test? This whole 'Loreseeker' training is a joke, man! You just yank us around, and have your fun, and I bet you all laugh at us later, right? Who really becomes Loreseekers – the guys who figure this all to be crap and call you out on it early? Huh?"
Aethyralun realized he was rambling and raging, but he didn't care. He couldn't hold this back; he barely felt he could restrain from outright attacking K'elt, actually. Like always, the joke's on him. And he'd played along this whole time.
"Is there anything that's simply what you say it is? Any quest, any mission, any test that we do that we just do?!" Aethyralun was visibly shaking, panting in anger, daring his professor to say something clever.
Professor K'elt paused, for just a breath, and said, "Algebra."
"Algebra. The algebra exam is 20 questions testing students on their ability to solve algebraic equations. Nothing hidden or surreptitious. We simply expect Loreseekers to be able to perform satisfactorily, when it comes to mathematics."
Aethyralun's rage was completely derailed, and it took him a minute before his mental processes got back on track.
"Algebra…" he said. "Ok. Algebra."
Aethyralun took his hands from his professor's desk, and took a step back, nodding slowly. A strange peace came to him at getting this bluntly precise information from K'elt. He smiled slightly at this minor personal victory.
"Alright Professor. Let's do some algebra."
Aethyralun sat back down in the large wooden chair, his elbow accidently slipping and sharply connecting with the solid backrest. Settling back, Aethyralun added a thoughtful, quiet,